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­How can circular economy help the food system?

On 8th March 1968, William S. Gaud coined the term “Green Revolution” in his speech. Later Norman Borlaug received a Nobel Peace prize for pushing the concept and lifting countless farmers out of subsistence lifestyles and saving hundreds of millions of people from starvation. Currently, the food industry is the world’s largest industry, with over 1 billion people working each day to grow, process, transport, market, cook, pack, sell or deliver food. But the drive for high yields and lower costs has led to numerous unwanted issues.


The global food system has impacted many important physical and social systems such as climate, energy, water, land, biodiversity and culture.

  • If the food industry was a country it would have 3rd largest carbon emissions globally after China and the USA. This can be attributed to large emissions from animal agriculture, rice farming and land-use change.
  • The food industry uses about 50% of the planet’s habitable land. It is estimated that livestock alone covers 45% of the Earth’s total land.
  • Animal agriculture is the leading cause of species extinction due to overfishing and habitat destruction.
  • The food industry is also responsible for ocean dead zones. These ocean dead zones are places where the marine ecosystems have collapsed due to contamination from fertilizers and pesticides.
  • About 70% of the freshwater demand is taken up by agriculture. In some places like the USA, that number reaches up to 90% of the country’s total water consumption.
  • 1/3 of the total food produced globally goes to waste. Meanwhile, more than 10% of the world’s population goes hungry every day.
  • The industrialized food production system produces 30% of food but uses 70% of the resources while at the same time greatly degrading the environment. On the other hand, the smallholder/peasant system produces 70% of the food and only uses 30% of resources, with a much lower environmental impact.
  • For every dollar spent on food, society pays two dollars in health, environmental, and economic costs due to the current nature of linear food system.

The current food system has brought many lost opportunities and consequential negative social and environmental impacts due to the wasteful linear model. All these impacts are going to increase in the coming decades with growing populations.

Due to the high demand for food products, an important yet controversial solution is genetically modified plants (GMOs). On the bright side, GMOs have the potential to reduce environmental damage while meeting the huge demands for food. However, the internet and social media have been filled with misinformation and misconceptions about the safety and utility of GMOs. Over the years, GMOs have received a lot of backlash from the public, especially in Europe. Therefore, in this blog, circular economy models will be discussed in the context of food systems and their environmental impact will be analyzed.

Circular Food Systems

A circular economy is restorative by design and mirrors nature in actively enhancing and optimizing the systems. It applies several principles from nature such as production out of waste, resilience through diversity, the use of renewable energy sources, systems thinking, and cascading flows of materials and energy. Circular food system means reducing the amount of waste generated in the food system, re-use of food, utilization of by-products and food waste, nutrient recycling, and changes in diet toward more diverse and more efficient food patterns. This can be illustrated in Figure 1 which shows the three stages in the food system. In a circular food system, once the edible waste is separated and distributed to other places, the by-products can provide additional values by creating new food products, fabrics for the fashion industry, or as sources of bioenergy.

Figure 1 The three stages of the food system in a circular economy.

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation published a report, Cities and the Circular Economy for Food, which identifies three interrelated ambitions that businesses, governments and cities can work on to achieve a circular food system (as shown in Figure 2).

Figure 2 The three ambitions of a circular food system developed by Ellen MacArthur Foundation.
  • Sourcing food grown regeneratively:

Regenerative food production supports natural systems, rebuilds and enhances ecosystems by employing certain techniques of food production. These include shifting from synthetic to organic fertilisers, employing crop rotation, and using greater crop variation to promote biodiversity. It also incorporates farming types such as agroecology, rotational grazing, agroforestry, conservation agriculture, and permaculture.

Local food production is another element of the circular food system which allows cities to become more resilient and efficient. Peri-urban areas, located within 20km of cities, can provide a large share of food for the cities. This can be achieved by understanding the peri-urban production and predicting the demand by consumers. Another aspect to local sourcing is that it allows cities to increase the resilience of their food supply by relying on a more diverse range of suppliers (local and global).

  • Make the most of food:

Reducing waste can be targeted at the source and the end. Cities can become centres where food by-products are transformed rather than a final destination for food. The by-products can be converted to organic fertilisers and biomaterials, medicine and bioenergy, thereby driving new revenue streams in a thriving bioeconomy. Cities also have the resources to distribute edible food waste to citizens such as providing free meals to homeless people. When it comes to reducing waste at source, there are certain ways to target it such as better matching of the supply with fluctuating demand for different food types; discounting soon-to-expire products; and using overripe produce for in-store food outlets.

  • Designing and marketing healthier food products:

In a circular food system, it is important for food brands, retailers, chefs, food businesses, schools and hospitals, who have a major influence on what we eat, to provide products which are healthy for both the people and natural systems. Nowadays, a lot of food produced is processed with chemicals and unhealthy ingredients. Having a diversity of products and recipes is also an important aspect of a circular food system. Currently, the world relies on just three crops for more than 50% of its plant-derived protein. The packaging that preserves food can also be made from materials that compost as safely and easily as the food it contains.

Ellen MacArthur Foundation explains that such a system would need collaboration from all the main urban food system actors in an unprecedented way. The three ambitions are interdependent with each other. If realised, the circular economy approach can lead to huge benefits to city economies, human health, and the environment, and helping to achieve many of the Sustainable Development Goals.

Projects on Circular Food Systems:

  • Ostara Nutrient Recovery Technology (ONRT):

An important nutrient for the overall health of crops and a key chemical component for photosynthesis is phosphorus. There is always a concern for its harmful runoff. ONRT, a company based in Vancouver has a new ‘Pearl Technology’, that can recover 85% of the phosphorus and up to 15% of the nitrogen from wastewater, transforming recovered materials into a high-value fertiliser product called ‘Crystal Green’. The product releases nutrients only when certain acids are given off by the growing plant roots which ensure efficient use of fertilizers and minimal runoff. One tonne of conventional fertilizer produces 10 tonnes of more CO2 emissions than one tonne of Crystal Green.

  • Agriprotein:

Most of the food produced by humans is used to feed animals for meat production. One-third of our arable land is used for growing feed for livestock which produces only 1.2% of our protein. A South African company, Agriprotein, has developed a process which valorises organic matter in agricultural by-products and food waste to produce animal feed. Their process uses Black Soldier Fly, an insect which can increase its weight by 200 times in just 10 days during its larval stage by feeding on discarded organic waste material. The larvae can be dried and converted into a highly nutritious feed for use in aquaculture or poultry and pig farming. Currently, an Agriprotein factory processes 250 tonnes of organic material per day, which could produce an insect meal that could avoid the netting and transport of 15 million wild fish.

Figure 3 A Black Soldier FLy used by Agriprotein as a resource for animal feed.
  • Lufa Farms:

As mentioned above, a circular food system has diversity and resilience. Lufa Farms, a Montreal food company, are pioneers in the area of urban farming and they have found innovative ways to produce food in cities. In 2011, they build the world’s first commercial rooftop hydroponic greenhouse. One year later, their greenhouse could produce sufficient food to feed 2000 locals from just 0.75 acre area. Producing food on previously underutilized urban roof spaces is a crucial step towards making cities more resilient and local.

  • Guelph’s Circular Food Economy:

In 2019, Guelph and Wellington County had started a project of a circular food economy with $10 million of federal funding. There were three goals to be achieved: increase access to affordable and nutritious food by 50%; create 50 new circular food businesses and collaborations and increase economic revenues by 50%; achieve this by 2025. Nine projects were laid put to achieve these goals in the next 5 years.  The organizers will try to bring together agencies to address food shortages and seek radical ways to use more of the food produced, resulting in less waste and creating economic gain.

Guelph’s nine projects are an amazing example of how circular food systems are not just idealistic visions. They are genuine projects aimed at reducing waste and improving the lives of the people in the county through better food and employment. Lessons learned from their projects need to be shared nationally and globally so that other countries can take the risks and start their circular food systems with the local knowledge. With growing populations and shifting diets, there needs to be a shift from a linear food system which is wasteful and unhealthy to a circular food system.


Published by Pranshu Patel

I am an ambitious environmental science graduate who is passionate about climate change and decarbonisation. I enjoy researching and writing about sustainability and climate change.

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